Many men really can only communicate through sport. It provides a ritualised way to argue, to become passionate and to bond without having to talk about awkward things such as feelings. This is never truer than of father-and-son relationships. But my father and I never had this common ground. He was a brilliant sportsman as a schoolboy and as an adult a keen golfer and rugby player. I, on the other hand, combined a scrawny physique with physical cowardice and an extraordinary lack of co-ordination.
My brothers weren’t much better but at least they were interested in watching sport and would accompany him to Lord’s and Twickenham. I envied their ease around him. To give him credit, he did try to find things that we were both interested in. There was motor racing: he couldn’t stand the noise so had to buy headphones, at which point he fell asleep.
And then there was the theatre. For years we went to highly lauded productions such as Diana Rigg in Medea or Michael Gambon in Beckett’s Endgame. On arrival my father would take his seat, mutter something about how he loved Euripides and then, just after the curtain came up, fall asleep. I would sit out of my mind with boredom wishing I was at home with a book. After a particularly bad run of plays, I finally admitted to him that I didn’t really enjoy the theatre. He was disappointed but I think relieved.
It looked as if we were destined to go through life treating each other with complete bafflement until in 1999 I started work at Oddbins. I’d been spending an increasing amount of time in the Headingley branch after my graduation, so it seemed a good idea to get a job there. It was a glorious time.
I caught the end of Oddbins’ crazy years before they were swallowed up by Castel. We supplied most of the bars and restaurants in Leeds. A night out would be somewhat like that bit in Goodfellas when the Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco characters go to the Copacabana club. We went straight to the front of the queue and often drank on the house all night. I embarked on a crash course in wine appreciation at the hands of Yorkshire’s rowdiest wine merchants — enlivened, it has to be said, with quite a bit of cocaine. I’m not sure Michael Broadbent would have approved. There’s nothing quite like drinking a 1976 von Buhl Forster Jesuit-garten Spatlese and watching the sun rise over Harrogate. My sudden interest in wine sparked a similar awakening in my father. He took a more sedate route for his wine education, however, by joining his local wine club in Amersham.
Wine was always something considered important in our family, though no one seemed to know why. My father didn’t know that much about it, his father even less: he just liked the stuff and knew that it was something an Englishman should be interested in. My father’s family have a slightly second-hand grasp of Englishness which I think comes from being Jewish.
We began to attend tastings together. One of the first was a 1985 Bordeaux horizontal, the wine provided by one of the members of his club. I remember being transfixed by the Pichon-Longueville Baron, but more than this I remember seeing my father for the first time as a human being rather than a distant bearded figure like an Old Testament prophet. I had left the wine trade by this point but read and tasted voraciously. I joined the Wine Society and we began to attend their tastings together. No matter which region we were tasting, my father would mutter ‘Mmm, nice and smooth’ or ‘I don’t like a wine that’s too smooth.’ I never knew which it was.
Despite his refusal to analyse what we were drinking, he has unerringly good taste. If he rates a wine, it’s normally very good. But of course, we weren’t just there for the wine. Having this thing that we did together enabled us to talk like we never could do before. We did sometimes invite my brothers or my wife but the dynamic didn’t work so now we keep it exclusively for us.
Apart from helping me get to know my father, this joint interest in wine has a happy symbiosis in that I would read about and try lots of wine and my father, being a successful businessman, would buy it. He now has stocks of Bordeaux, Rhône, Burgundy and some German stuff in storage. I’ve tried to do my bit by buying him cases of wine for his birthday. We’re currently working our way through a case of Bandol Pradeaux ’05 that I bought him for his 65th.
By 2009 I was in the odd position of having an all-consuming passion that I could only share on occasional nights out with my father. Most of my friends were of the three-bottles-for-£10 school of wine buying. What I needed was an outlet for all this accumulated knowledge. First, I tried writing a book on the history of wine, which never saw the light of day. More successfully, I began a blog which led to paid writing work. One day I was summoned for tea with Rachel Johnson and she asked me to become wine columnist of The Lady. I accepted of course and immediately called my father to tell him the good news. I’ve never heard him sound so proud; it may have made up for a lifetime of sporting ineptitude.